November 2013

Will George

fiction

Half the Kingdom by Lore Segal

Lore Segal's Half the Kingdom is a well-observed comedy-drama about the perils of aging gracelessly. At eighty-five years old, Segal writes about aging with some authority. And she writes fiction with even more authority. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, and The New York Times. In 2008 she was a Pulitzer finalist for the story collection Shakespeare's Kitchen. Half the Kingdom, the sequel to Shakespeare's Kitchen, reveals the fates of its eldest characters, especially a lovable, doddering eccentric named Joe Bernstine.

Bernstine, a career eschatologist, edits The Compendium of End-of-the-World Scenarios, your guide to annihilation by flood, meteor, plague, nuclear holocaust, and head colds. Joe is not only a pessimist, he's thoroughly paranoid. Above all, he has a professional interest in terrorism. He knows all about the next attack on Manhattan: what services will be cancelled, which exits not to take, how to avoid Midtown and at what time of day... just about everything but the date of the catastrophe.

Hospitalized with incidental breathing trouble, Joe receives a diagnosis of dementia. No one noticed it before, so (Joe assumes) he must have contracted dementia in the emergency room. There's only one explanation: terrorism. Terrorists bioengineered this contagious "copycat Alzheimer's," as Joe calls it, and now it's all over the hospital. Everyone over sixty-two years old in New York's Cedars of Lebanon hospital will soon be reduced to babbling, dribbling sub-morons.

Half the Kingdom takes Joe's paranoid premise at face value. The "copycat Alzheimer's" incidence rate among Cedars inpatients over sixty-two is indeed 100 percent. The novel presents their case studies character by character. Most chapters simply bear the names of the afflicted (Francis Rhinelander, Ilka Weiss, and Ida Farkasz) or their caregivers (Bethy, Deborah, and Shirley). The result is a sequence of amusing character sketches with surprisingly little plot development in fewer than two hundred pages.

Most of the brief, disjointed scenes of Segal's sparsely plotted story take place either in the hospital, in the recollections of its demented patients, or both. Francis Rhinelander's entrance, for example, finds him sitting in the emergency room, reflecting on his confused journey to the hospital and on the disorder that brought him there. Francis hears music in his head. His complaint isn't that he hears it. It's that the music is too loud. Segal often peeks into her characters' heads, giving Half the Kingdom its psychological focus.

Bethy stared at her mother as if she were an alien from a developing planet.

Jenny thought, She is an unpleasant woman, my poor darling, and wondered how long it would take her to forget having thought this.

Without ridiculing the sufferers of "copycat Alzheimer's," Segal treats the subject of dementia with a light touch. Some unfortunates are frankly exploited for their comedic value: an elderly woman insists on going naked; a man convinces himself -- despite all evidence -- that he's dead. It's easy to smile at the characters' unselfconscious follies; at their cracked wisdom.

Lucy said, "I remember watching my little Benedict on his way to the bathroom. I'd say, 'You need a haircut.' I'd watch him coming out of the bathroom and I'd say, 'Tuck in your shirt!' You look at them with your chest in a riot of love wanting them to be happy, to tuck in their shirt. Today, in the office, I knew that picking up a grown son's sweats from underneath his chair impinges on his liberty, so I did it quick, quick, like gulping forbidden food before the calories have time to register."

Dementia turns other characters into fountains of accidental wit. At an intake interview, a nurse asks a patient:

"Name?"

"Ida Farkasz."

"Do you know where you live?"

Ida Farkasz named her New York address and the date and place of her birth: "Pojorny before World War One, when it was still Hungary. The Slovaks call it Bratislava." ...

"Occupation?"

"The Nazis marched into Bratislava in March of 1939...?"

"I think they mean your occupation -- what work did you do?"

Or better still:

"Nurse Gomez diagnosed sudden-onset white hair."

Al said, "My nana suffered sudden-onset red hair."

The book contains plenty of such banter -- too much, if that's possible. Favoring dialogue over description, Half the Kingdom draws some characters and environments so sketchily that they're hard to visualize. But sometimes Segal turns on the descriptive tap:

Lucy smiled at the crooked old woman who glared at her over the top of her glasses that must have been fitted when the face was better fleshed, because they were on a slide down the nose for a rendezvous with the hairy chin.

A complex sentence with deceptively simple language, that's one of the more elevated passages in the book. Often Segal's prose relies on plainness, almost matter-of-factness, for its effect: "The table was covered with crimson crinkle-paper, slices of ruined chocolate cake on clown-face paper plates, birthday candles with blackened wicks, blasted party favors, rags of exploded balloons." In just a few places Segal hoists the register, then sharply returns to more ordinary diction:

The jogger ran way down the beach along the wavelets that looked to have been drawn by a lovingly sharpened pencil. Serene and limpid, they magnified a string of seaweed, the convolutions of a shell whose inhabitant had moved on. The horizon was beginning to spray needles of light into the chilly air, which was a funny time for the fat old codger with the shirt rolled under his neck, wide-legged old-codger swim trunks, to be napping like something the high tide had deposited.

If only Half the Kingdom had more passages like that! When they finally appear, between long stretches of austere though effective dialogue, they're worth the wait.

Oddly, some of the best writing in Half the Kingdom is its worst. In "Rumplestiltskin in Emergency," a story by one of the dementia patients, Segal lampoons amateur fiction:

The Emergency doctor asks the patient how long he has been experiencing the pain.... The doctor palpates the patient, who screams. The doctor knows where the pain is! This doctor is old and bald. He looks like a doctor. The man in pain asks him, "What is wrong with me?" The doctor says, "We'll know more when we've done a couple of tests." ... "What" cries the patient, "is its name?" "Rumpelstiltskin!" the doctor says. The man in pain is throwing up again.

It takes a skilful writer to produce something this inept without overdoing it. The facetious "Rumplestiltskin in Emergency" contrasts beautifully with Segal's "straight" prose.

Apart from exploring dementia, Half the Kingdom lengthily satirizes medical bureaucracy, especially in scenes in the ER where's there's little for patients to do but wait... and wait... and wait.

"I'm bleeding from my head!" the old man said out loud... "Ain't I an emergency?"

"To you, you're an emergency," said the doctor... "To us you're the next case."

This old man really shouldn't complain. Another character spends four pages not getting an appointment with her doctor.

Overall, Half the Kingdom's comedy-drama comprises perhaps one-third comedy, two-thirds drama. Restrained but well-timed humor punctuates this hospital satire, presented as a series of interwoven character studies, psychologically astute but alarmingly uneventful. For all the absurdity of the premise that every patient over sixty-two is demented, Half the Kingdom is otherwise realistic. People grow old. People grow senile. People sit the geriatric ward and talk. That's aging for you. That's realism. How can you find fault with realism?

Half the Kingdom by Lore Segal
Melville House
ISBN: 978-1612193021
176 pages